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Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00

Burroughs Wellcome Fund welcome

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The Burroughs Wellcome Fund has renewed its commitment to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s inquiry-based, hands-on science education programs. That is music to this tone deaf naturalist’s ears.

With apologies to R.D. Laing, what we know about the environment is less than what we love. What we love is so much less than what there is. And to this precise extent we are so much less than what we should be: good stewards.

We in Western North Carolina should be painfully aware of how little we and scientists actually know about the planet we live on. The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory – an attempt to catalogue and study all the taxa in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – began in 1998. Since that time 565 species totally new to science and 3,572 species new to the park have been discovered.

We are on a spaceship whizzing through the galaxy, tethered by forces we don’t completely understand, to a large star called the sun. It is a self-contained spaceship. We are enveloped in a fragile life-supporting cocoon. Our existence and the existence of the ship itself depend on the condition of that cocoon and the interactions among the taxa, the ship’s resources and the cocoon.

How can we be good stewards of what we have so little knowledge of?

There seems to be a large disconnect today between the natural world and the “real” world. The natural world for most is that place you go for a week or on the weekend to do cool things and see cool stuff. The real world is where you live and work and do the necessary things to insure that you and your family has food, clothes, shelter etc. We lose sight that it’s only one ship and that division between the natural world and the real world is arbitrary and only exists in our heads. The real world depends on the resources of the natural world — fuel, water, food, building supplies, air etc. — in order to function. All of our actions in the real world impact the natural world.

I think, for a large part, this disconnect is due to a lack of knowledge and experience. As we have become more and more urbanized, as asphalt and concrete have replaced more and more earth and forests, this disconnect has become greater.

Instead of summer being a time for kids to wallow in the creek, chase salamanders then lie in the sun until they’re warm and dry, it’s a time to ride in the van to baseball practice, then back in the van to a movie, then back in the van for a drive-thru meal and home.

When the kids in designer jeans, the kids from the ghetto, and the kids in overalls stand side by side and get the same dirt under their fingernails and hold the same butterfly and see the same ozone damage and learn that the butterfly must have milkweed to survive the summer and that it will fly across the Gulf to overwinter in Mexico and that the ozone could be reduced — then that disconnect will lessen.

After all we don’t live off the earth. We live on the earth.

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